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Super Bowl preview: Contrasting the Eagles’ and Chiefs’ rookie contributions

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is right around the corner. The Eagles are riding high after going scorched earth through the playoffs and now they have one team between them and immortality. The Chiefs figure to be a much tougher matchup, featuring the likely NFL MVP in Patrick Mahomes and a DPOY candidate in Chris Jones. More than their obvious stars, the Chiefs contrast from the Eagles in the way rookies have played a factor in their success this year.

The Chiefs made 10 picks in the 2022 draft. They had a wealth of premium picks after trading Tyreek Hill and the team decided to reload on young talent. It was a curious choice at the time to trade away one of the league’s top receivers and uncouple him from their star quarterback. It was even more curious to start a youth movement on a team that was coming off its fourth straight AFC championship appearance.

In 2021, the Eagles had a huge dependence on rookies as they started the Jalen Hurts/Nick Sirianni era. DeVonta Smith was a No. 1 receiver as a rookie. Landon Dickerson found a home at left guard. Kenneth Gainwell was the team’s third down back. Milton Williams was a key role player on defense. Jack Stoll went from being a UDFA to being the team’s best blocking tight end. Rookies were so prominently featured because the team was rebuilding after the Doug Pederson era crashed and burned.

This year’s Eagles team is more mature. Even after a well-regarded rookie class that featured Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean and Cam Jurgens, the Eagles mostly relied on more experienced players to carry them to their 14-3 record in the regular season. Davis did not need to be a huge factor because of Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave and Milton Williams. Dean barely saw the field on defense because of TJ Edwards and Kyzir White holding it down at linebacker. Cam Jurgens was drafted to succeed Jason Kelce, sitting behind him for as long as the Hall of Famer could play.

Typically, lineups that heavily feature rookies are a sign of a rebuilding team. The calculus changes when Patrick Mahomes is your quarterback. He can have an MVP-level season and take a team to the Super Bowl without a true number one receiver, so keeping the team young around him is just smart roster construction.

The Chiefs drafted well, which is the other factor that puts rookies in the line up early on. Trent McDuffie was the team’s first pick. The cornerback out of Washington dealt with injuries early in the season, but emerged as a really solid defender down the stretch. McDuffie is a good cover man who is fearless when tackling ball carriers. Then the team used their other first round pick on George Karlaftis, a raw pass rusher out of Purdue. While Karlaftis has yet to convert disruption into sacks, he has generally been a problem causer on the edge of the Kansas City defense.

The Chiefs rookies remain impressive even when you look beyond their first two picks. Jaylen Watson has emerged as a gem at cornerback despite being a seventh round pick, as he has played especially well in the playoffs. Isiah Pacheco has been a revelation at running back. The day three runner out of Rutgers is one of the more dynamic players on the Chiefs offense. Skyy Moore was drafted to maintain a vertical element to an offense that just lost Tyreek Hill. While Moore barely contributed during the regular season, his explosiveness was on full display in the AFC Championship when he had a game changing kick return. Second round pick Leo Chenal has yet to really establish himself on the Chiefs defense, but he comes in as a two down linebacker occasionally.

Meanwhile, the Eagles’ best rookie by far has been an undrafted safety who did not start until midway through the year (Reed Blankenship).

This juxtaposition does not mean one team is built better or worse than the other. The Eagles 2022’ draft class still figures to make a big difference down the line, which was the plan all along. However, it shows how there is not just one way to build a Super Bowl winning roster. With the Eagles having a ton of high profile impending free agents this spring, they can be encouraged the fact that an elite quarterback and a great GM means the Super Bowl window stays open.

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